Dec. 30, 2003
Hawkeyes were huddling all over the greater Tampa area on Tuesday. Guests with a little black and gold in their heart gathered at A La Carte Pavilion for the President’s Reception presented by Met Life and Mercedes Benz of Tampa. Another group enjoyed lunch at the by-invitation-only Outback Bowl Team Luncheon at the Hyatt Regency in Downtown Tampa.
Perhaps the highlight of the day — at least for the fans of the Hawkeyes — was the 2004 Outback Bowl Hawkeye Huddle at the Tampa Convention Center. A crowd of nearly 15,000 friends and fans of Coach Kirk Ferentz’s squad gathered and were entertained by the radio voice of the Iowa Hawkeyes, Gary Dolphin, and his sidekick, Ed Podolak; the UI Marching Band, cheerleaders, pom squad and Herky; and — to the delight of all in attendance — UI President David Skorton, who added a little saxaphone to the Iowa Fight Song.
For Ferentz and the Hawkeyes, the day included another practice session at Jesuit High School located just blocks north of Raymond James Stadium. There, the Hawkeyes did their own huddling…and continued to finalize their game plan for Thursday’s date with the Florida Gators.
Let’s review: The Florida Gators will carry an 8-4 overall record into the 2004 Outback Bowl, a mark that includes a 6-2 record in Southeastern Conference play. The league losses came at home against Tennessee when the Vols were ranked No. 12 in the nation and at home against Ole Miss, a team that was led by Heisman Trophy finalist Eli Manning.
The Gators beat both teams who played in the SEC Championship game: Louisiana State by a 19-7 score at Death Valley and Georgia by a 16-13 score in The Swamp. Florida has won five of its last six games with the only loss in the stretch coming to intrastate rival Florida State in a hotly contested 38-34 battle in late November.
Kirk Ferentz watches Iowa go through its paces during Tuesday’s practice for the 2004 Outback Bowl.
“They’re an outstanding football team. We’re going to have our hands full,” said Ferentz bluntly.
Ferentz said the Gators found success shortly after settling on freshman Chris Leak as their quarterback. The true freshman took over the Florida offense officially in week five of UF’s season when the Gators handed Kentucky a 24-21 loss in Lexington.
Leak went on to post wins in six of eight starts, completing 168 of 279 attempts for more than 2,000 yards and 14 touchdowns. He became the fourth Florida player to be named the SEC’s Freshman of the Year, following in the footsteps of Emmitt Smith, Danny Wuerffel and Jabar Gaffney.
He is the engine that makes the Gator offense go which is no surprise, according to Ferentz.
“A large part of that success is them getting comfortable at that position. They have a very nice scheme and (Leak) knows how to fit into that scheme,” Ferentz said. “They’re a very dangerous offensive team with him in there.
“We’re not all surprised by what Chris is doing,” Ferentz continued. “He’s just a tremendous football player. We all knew he could throw the ball and throw it very accurately.
“What’s most impressive about Chris is his decisiveneess and his poise. He’s playing well beyond his years. He’s playing like a third or fourth year guy in college.”
Ferentz chuckled when asked about the thought of facing Leak on the field after having gotten to know him so well during the recruiting season of a year ago. “That thought never really entered my mind until this thing all came about. Frankly, it’s not a pleasant thought. We have such great respect for him,” Ferentz said.
“We just have to go out a play our ball. We have to go in and play our game,” said UI safety Bob Sanders about facing Leak and the ’03 Gators.
“We need to be prepared. We need to be focused. But, most of all, we need to play our game and that’s physical, fly-to-the-ball football,” he added.
Nathan Chandler will quarterback the Hawkeyes for a final time on Jan. 1 against Florida.
Iowa’s defensive coordinator Norm Parker simply smiled when asked about stopping the Gator offense. “Leak is a star now and a future superstar,” Parker said without pause.
Parker — like Ferentz — also pointed to Florida tight end Ben Troupe as another force to be reckoned with by the Hawkeyes. Iowa’s linebackers will be tested by the senior from August, Ga., who, according to Iowa’s coaches, has NFL written all over him.
A first-team all-American, Troupe has caught a team-high 39 passes for a team-high 638 yards and five touchdowns in 2003.
“I hope so,” Parker laughed when asked whether Iowa’s linebackers and defensive backs are ready to challenge Troupe.
“Anytime you play against a guy that good, you’ve got to be looking forward to it if you’re a competitor,” Parker added. “Different guys will end up on him in different coverages, but nobody’s been able to cover him yet whether it’s a linebacker or defensive back.”
Parker said there could be a little carryover from a year ago for the Iowa defenders who practice against UI all-American Dallas Clark. “Those guys know how well a quality tight end can run. Dallas could run and so can this guy,” Parker said.
On the other side of the ball, offensive coordinator Ken O’Keefe is pretty certain what the Gator defensive game plan is built on: They’re going to make the Hawkeyes pass by stopping the Iowa ground game — an obvious approach considering Iowa has run the ball 485 times compared to throwing it 295 times in 2003.
“No doubt about it. They’re going to want to force us to throw the ball downfield,” said O’Keefe.
“They have excellent team speed. They’re talented. They make plays. And, when they do make a mistake, they have tremendous recovery speed, particularly their up-front guys,” he added.